Spatialising how?

Maybe the spatial turn doesn’t even have to be a “turn” at all.

Splendor Solis, Treaty of Alchemy, “Le chevalier sur la double fontaine”

As the readers will now know, the aim of this blog is equally to present readings and conferences about the crisscrossing of geography and the sociology of social movements as to present the state of a reflexion as it unfolds. Mostly I have questions, caused by the interdisciplinary but also intradisciplinary issues with my work, and I do not claim to have answers to them. They work as walls on which to bang my head, mostly.

That being said, one of the convictions which have been mine since I began working on this field has been the absolute certainty of the necessity of the spatial turn. By spatial turn, what we generally mean is a critique of the aspatial dimension of the social sciences, following a critique of separatism in geography. The main argument in favour of such an enterprise was perfectly summarised by Charles Tilly: Stuff happens somewhere. Simple as it is, essays like Edward Soja’s Postmodern Geographies have illustrated the extent to which this fact was ignored by disciplines which have very much understood the interest of time as a dimension of social life, but not paid much attention to space. A critique from which span many proposals, which have been presented here.

The most ambitious one, to my knowledge, comes from Fabrice Ripoll, who has been unfairly ignored in my reviews on social movements and space and the geography of social movements. Ripoll proposes a dimensional approach to the question: considering space as a dimension of the social and, therefore, trying to overcome the divide itself. In a 2013 article titled “Du « Rôle de l‘espace » Aux Théories de « l‘acteur » (Aller-Retour) : La Géographie à l‘épreuve Des Mouvements Sociaux”, he writes:

The only way not to dissolve society or space, i.e. to get out of this alternative, is to interrogate it in order to search for its foundations, at least the intellectual ones. Thus we must reconsider the terms of the question itself, beginning with that of space and the conceptually equivalent ones (but society and the social cannot remain unscathed). Does not debating on the meaning of the relations between “society” and “space”, “the social” and “the spatial”, the “social relations” and the “spatial relations”, etc., presuppose the mutual exteriority of the two terms? Do we not have a tendency to consider space as a thing, separated from society, which is also turned into a “thing” which could exist out of space? Does using terms such as consubstantiality or dialectic suffice to solve the problem? [Translation by AM]

The proposal is much more ambitious than I first understood it, as the goal is not to shed a new light on the space-society relation as much as to question the very interest and use of this relation: do we need these terms at all? Would we not be better off just taking the relation for granted instead of looking still for specific effects or dynamics?

Spontaneously, and without having explored the specificities of his own answer to that question – which I will – there are two reasons why I keep on thinking the relation is interesting to name. I believe Ripoll, who is a very brilliant researcher, has already considered them, so what follows is not an answer to him, but a reflexion to myself:

  • The first one is linked to the work of interdisciplinarity, which is not merely an epistemological one in the sense that it does not merely work on the concepts but also on the traditions. Even if the divide between geography and sociology seems artificial, it is also existent, geographers and sociologists having their own departments, their own journals, classics, and theories.
  • The second is that so much sociological work remains aspatial, even occasionally when it claims to be otherwise, meaning that the specific effects of what has been called “the spatial”, particularly in its material sense, is being ignored or merely employed to give flavour to theories. This should justify that the interdisciplinary work should keep being vindicated, at least in my current perspective.

This note is written quickly to keep the record of my current state of thinking, so it should not be taken too seriously. Further reading and thinking is required for it to become actually interesting or relevant. I feel like I have long hours of banging my head on walls before the topic becomes clearer.

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